Pros: real time control combat system; multiple fighting styles and characters; deep storyline
Cons: aside from combat system, it's basically SW:KOTOR in a fantasy Chinese setting
The martial arts culture and philosophies have invaded the US in a big way since the days of action stars Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Steven Segal, and Jackie Chan. Now a Hong Kong martial arts choreographer is present in virtually every Hollywood action movie. Since video games are quickly becoming interactive movies (especially the RPGs like Final Fantasy, Xenosaga, and others with LONG cutscenes), it only made since that one of the best RPG game developers, Bioware (makers of the legendary Baldurs Gate Series, Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dale, and Star Wars:Knights of the Old Republic), would dip into this market. Now usually the realm of martial arts in video games was limited to fighters both beat em ups (Final Fight, Double Dragon, etc.) and the more popular vs. style (Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, King Of Fighters, etc.). Due to the usual fast pace and simple story lines, these martial arts game were usually light on the story and heavy on the action. Even with Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, the stories of the fighters and the tournament are a merely a backdrop to the action experienced in the game. The innovators of Bioware decided to flex their storytelling ability by completely crafting an fantasy ancient Chinese realm in which to develop an epic and deeply involved story in which the action serves as a vessel for the meaty and engrossing storyline. In this style game, presentation as well as execution is important. And believe me, Jade Empire delivers.
The drive of this game is for the gamer to create their own personal martial arts master from the mold of roughly 6 different martial artists. Each of them begin with their own fighting styles and beginning attributes. As you traverse this virtual Empire, youll grow and customize your fighters styles, demeanor, and abilities to your own liking which affects the gameplay as well as the storyline to some degree. As you gain experience, you apply style points to upgrade the effectiveness of each of the different fighting styles that youve learned as well as attributes. The overall format takes from the instant classic Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (SW:KOTOR). A gamer familiar will that series will notice the basic gameplay, menu format, and story delivery from that series is present within Jade Empire. The good or evil path is handled by saying the hero follows one of two philosophies the way of the Open Palm (good) or the Closed Fist (evil or more selfish). Instead if cybernetics and items to choose from to enhance your hero, youll get gems that go into a medallion. Also youll learn techniques and philosophies that will enhance mind, body, and spirit. The graphics are very similar and the exploration and NPC encounters are very similar to virtually any other Bioware RPG (sidequest after sidequest). To some, these simplistic sidequests, which usually dont contribute to the major storyline any more than to define whether you follow the Open Palm or Closed Fist way. At some points of the game, they just seem to be a waste of time with little reward (depending on your philosophy path of course).
In between major storyline chapters, youll be treated to an arcade shooter style mini-game similar to 1942 or Galaga where you fly a contraption and shoot down choreographed formation flying machines. Its a nice little change of pace splashed into the storyline.
The real strategy and difficulty of the game is mapping the right 4 martial arts style for the particular battle youll be in. You can learn martial, support, magic, weapon, and transformation styles. Martial styles are your core styles that will damage virtually anything in your path. The support styles do status damage like slowing your opponent, stealing chi, and such. These styles will only do damage when charged by chi. These styles also initiate what is called a harmonic combo. When coupled with a martial style and completed on a foe, the combo will produce a power-up (health, focus, or chi). Human opponents will be the easiest at first since they wont have any or as many style immunities. As you progress through the story, youll battle ghosts, monsters, and demons as well who have their own spells and style immunities. These battles will force you to changes strategies and styles often.
The major difference from the SW:KOTOR series is the combat. In SW:KOTOR, you clicked on each character involved (a max of 2 support characters) and told them which enemy to attack and the AI would resolve the combat for you. You basically watched a simulated battle as it played out with commands you placed in sequence. In JE, however, you control the blocks, kicks, dodges, style changes, spell casting, and such until your foe is defeated. One button attacks, another blocks, yet another is a heavy attack, and so on. Youll charge your fighter with chi to do more damage, use slow heavy attacks to defeat an opponents block, change martial arts styles to complete harmonic combos, transform into demons to defeat supernatural beings, wield martial arts weapons, and more as you flip, kick, and wow your way through yet another legendary RPG developed by the masters of the genre. Unfortunately, you dont have control over your support characters or their growth. They seem to simply be diversions in battles where you face multiple enemies. You can have them fight or provide a support role (where their meditation provides you with a bonus of some sort yet all enemies focus on you). They dont switch styles, they do not learn new ones, they dont equip items. Truthfully, they exist to provide more side-quests and comment in the various conversations you have with other NPCs. That is a feature of SW:KOTOR that will be missed.
The way the graphics and sound immerse you in this realm is astounding. Much in the same way Baldur's Gate was done, the music takes the epic fantasy feel of the game and permeates it through your audio being. Though not decidedly asian in feel, it still seems to fit the mood and theme of the game. This can also be said of the graphic stylings of the game. The beautifully detailed temples, structures, houses, forests, caves, and such all are done much in the same vein of the SW:KOTOR. The smooth fighting animation will entice you as the immense polish on this game from the music to the character detail is something you wish from ANY game, RPG or not. As for the voice acting, you could almost say the same cast that performed the SW:KOTOR voices again tried their hand in Jade Empire. Few characters will have that decidedly Asian accent when speaking English. Also, they had the actors speak in an odd tongue to simulate the ancient speak of the Jade Empire realm. It is a nice touch. Unfortunately, your hero is mute. As you select the dialogue you wish to respond to the NPCs (just as in SW:KOTOR), your character's mouth never moves and audio is rarely if ever heard (Maybe one or two lines are heard during or after battle). Not a big thing but to some that might be disturbing for a game so deeply moved by the storyline.
Despite the lack of certain features, the fresh new combat system provides enough variety in the battles and the overall game experience to make Jade Empire fit high on the totem pole for the few RPGs that exist on the Xbox. Jade Empire is a unique kung-fu RPG that continues Biowares RPG dominance on the Xbox. Though there is room for improvement, the satisfying storyline, ability to choose between 6-7 different heroes, and numerous sidequests will keep RPG lovers coming back to this one over and over.